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I wasn't prepared for this: the difficulties on returning to basketball in the midst of a coaching change.
It was not my first show at the rodeo when I arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee for the first time on a new campus with a new team. After attending Washington State University for the last four years, due to an injury sustained in my junior year, the NCAA granted me a medical redshirt allowing for one more year of eligibility to play basketball.
As I prepared to graduate from WSU, I was also preparing to transfer. In March of 2018, I signed with The University of Tennessee and head coach Holly Warlick, as a grad transfer where I would play one final year of eligibility. Arriving late on campus in September of 2018, I jumped right in.
Three weeks later the Lady Vols and I would begin our first week of official practices. It was my first time practicing on our main court, The Summit, named in honour of the legendary late Pat Summit. It was where I would tear my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus, and I became immediately aware that my season was probably over, before it even began.
ACLs are not uncommon especially in women’s sports so I had witnessed several of my teammates from different teams go through the rehab process. I knew what to expect, I knew it was going to be difficult both mentally and physically.
What I was not prepared for was the difficulty I would face getting back to playing basketball, in the midst of a coaching change.
A change of coach
The 2018/19 season for the Lady Vols was a flop to make a long story short. Breaking records for all the wrong reasons and a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament resulted in the sacking of head coach Holly Warlick and the rehiring of former player Kelly Harper, in April of 2019.
Harper played under Pat Summitt and was the point guard for the Lady Vols when they won back to back to back national championships from 1996-98. She knows her stuff and she knew what it would take to win games in March.
A few weeks into the transition, Kelly Harper and an assistant coach had pulled me into her office and asked me what type of player I was. I expressed to her just that, while thinking to myself, so maybe she has not watched any film on me, yet?
Fast forward to the beginning of summer school, June 2019. I had just begun participating in more competitive drills and as a team, we were beginning to prepare for a tour of Europe at the beginning of August. I was so eager to be able to go out and play in a real basketball game. I was definitely feeling the nerves but was trying to channel those feelings into positive ones.
This meant we were in a lot more team practices rather than individual, and I was already struggling to keep up – my confidence was slowly deteriorating.
We played three games whilst in Europe, these were just lighthearted practice games and would not have been an accurate representation of any of the games we would play during our season. We went out and just played and the coaches were letting us.
The first two games were a lot of fun, I definitely was not playing up to where I was prior to my injury but I was okay with that, I did not expect to. My teammates were excited for me, there was no pressure which obviously helped immensely.
Unfortunately, I re-tore my meniscus and did not play the third game in Europe. I was pretty bummed, but looked at it as a small setback nothing I had not handled before. I received a small scope right when we returned to Tennessee but my knee was not responding the same after the scope. Even though the surgery was not as severe as the first one I found it a lot more challenging to rehab. I had lost all the work I had put into rehabbing my knee the first time, and for some reason just could not get it back to the same in time for season.
I arranged a meeting with my head coach, in an attempt to express how I was feeling. My morale was low and I was struggling in more ways than one. This was not a conversation where I anticipated things to be fixed, nor did I want that directly from her, but more of an open dialogue to hopefully grow our relationship.
While I was keen for a quick return. I moved forward at my own pace and really tried to look after my knee, I was really cautious in my approach given my previous injury, and unfortunately it was just never the same, despite everything I tried. I was doing individual training sessions with coaches and putting in extra hours shooting in the gym but whenever I tried to practice, I really struggled. It was almost as if anything I could do on my own I could not transfer to practices, and that was frustrating. I wanted to do things my body was not ready to perform.
Looking back, I think a lot of the challenges I was facing was all in my head. My knee was constantly giving me grief, they had thrown me in a hinged knee brace that was quite restrictive and my confidence was at an all-time low. I knew I was a smart player and if I wanted to play this year, I would have to develop an important role. I did this through being a positive teammate, tried to be tough and do things my teammates were not necessarily going to do, like taking charges, there is so much more to my game but I had unfortunately accepted i just couldn’t reach it again.
It was working though, I was starting, playing good minutes and was so grateful for all that I was doing. Playing for Tennessee, outside of my teammates and coaches is an experience in itself. There is an abundance of support for women’s basketball and we drew in awesome crowds, playing in front of 12,000 people on a Sunday afternoon. The support and love I received from the fans was very rare and will stay with me for the rest of my life. There is a type of adrenaline you feel when playing in a gym packed with people. It is fun, creates such an incredible atmosphere and I know that is difficult for opposing teams to play in.
Games were going by, and the strength that I did have left in my knee felt as if it was slowly deteriorating with each game. In practices I was trying to do more and more so I could play better, and feel like my old self out there, but that was probably not going to happen.
During one particular practice that has stuck in my memory, I had just attempted to drive to the basket in back-to-back plays. Both times I lost the ball, much to my frustration. When I looked back to my coaches seeking support and encouragement, my heart sank to a new low. Expecting corrections, all I saw were laughs. All while running through my head was “My coaches were laughing at me! It was embarrassing and there was no way I was ever going to do that during a game. My coaches are laughing, imagine what 12,000 people might say?”
Did I think they had poor intent? Absolutely not. I believe I just hadn’t developed a good enough relationship with them.
Similarly, during a game, there was another example that remains in the forefront of my mind. I had pulled down a rebound and was dribbling up the court, and the play I attempted to make resulted in a turnover. At the time, I received no feedback – good or bad – but the game was moving fast, and I was secretly glad I wasn’t yelled at, but surprised. We were playing Vanderbilt, a team we were supposed to beat and did just that.
The next day we were watching film, so it was a lighter-hearted film session than usual, and my head coach was not there this time, our assistant coach was running film. They pulled the clip of my turnover, among others, and again my coach was laughing at me, feeling embarrassed for a second time while also adding that ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do that.’ With my emotions welling up, I responded.
“I used to be able to do that,” all while holding back tears. I was feeling fragile and some days it would strike a chord more than others.
This was a big pill to swallow. One factor that definitely contributed to the sensitivity I was feeling towards these situations was these were all aspects of my game I was usually good at, however I had just lost touch of during my injury, but my coaches did not know that. I became very comfortable in my role, I was accepting the fact I was not going to be the same player, but that did not mean I couldn’t impact this team.
“I used to be able to do that.” This statement would prove to epitomise my senior year.
It was a constant feeling of trying to prove something rather than trying to improve something while coming back from a long term injury. Longing for coach direction, support, and help to get back to playing 100%, but it never was forthcoming and just never got there.
I was not recruited by our current coaches. This was my last year, and we were coming off the back of a poor season and losing players to the transfer portal. I was feeling this season was not a priority for our coaches, the future of the program was.
Preparing for my exit and moving on
Ultimately, COVID-19 happened, the NCAA tournament was cancelled and it was an escalation of things for nothing. I left very abruptly with a mere text for goodbyes, and I guess there was just no real closure for my time at Tennessee.
I take a lot away from this experience, and this was only mine, I cannot speak for my teammates.
I would love to one day become a coach and have always been very observant of my coaches and taking note of the experiences that I have had. As a young woman, I was affected by these people in a short time from a lack of doing and a lack of relationship on both parts. I take away how I felt in those moments and also from all the positive experiences I have had with former coaches, like at Washington State. I hope to one day emulate the good and rewrite the bad, but in different roles.
I became tougher mentally, overcame bad habits and took the time to take care of my mental health. The only person who was going to make it harder on myself was me. I learnt to celebrate the small things and everything I did have and could do, constantly reminding myself this time was all temporary.
Though it fell short of all my expectations from a playing perspective, that does not take away from all the positives of playing for one of the most revered women’s college programs in the US.
I had the coolest teammates and I always felt supported by them, if it was not for them I do not know if I could have stuck it out.
The University of Tennessee is a great school and I do not ever regret transferring there. Overall it was an amazing experience and I have the upmost respect for the coaches there. I am honoured to have met the people I have, and been around the best company of female athletes in the world. Big things are in store for the Lady Vol program.
I have since been able to graduate with a Masters, in one of the more challenging years of my life and come back to Australia where I will continue to get my knee back to 100% and pursue coaching alongside other things. I am hopeful I can impact players the way I have had former coaches impact my life – for the better.